Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2003 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
Coffee Making Methods
- Percolator -

      These chapters were originally written for my newspaper as part of an somewhat-monthly coffee column. They were designed to expose the coffee novice as to the various methods of making coffee and act as a starting point for understanding these methods. If you have been making coffee by any of these methods for any length of time then you will probably not find anything in these chapters to enlighten or educate you. Please feel free to E-mail me with anything that you think could be improved in these methods. -ED

ADDENDUM: No other articlke on this website has generated more negative responses than this one. There are plenty of folks who still swear by this method of making coffee, and some ahve taken the time to write me to tell me how wrong I am in my statements in this article. If you prefer this methd of making coffee, that is fine.

      With the exception of filtering through a dirty gym sock, this has to be about the worst possible way to make coffee- a percolator. Over the years, the percolator has probably been the single most-used method for making coffee, and there are a lot of reasons for that.

      First, a percolator is an inexpensive device, consisting of just a few parts that can be made out of aluminum, or as earlier versions were, made of steel and covered in baked enamel. Being made of metal, they also tend to last a long time. Later versions, which appeared in homes in the fifties and sixties in particular, had the main vessel made of glass although there were some made that were totally of glass. These, of course, were not as tough as the metal ones, but were far more stylish and looked good in the kitchens of those eras. I own four or five of these older, stylized pots, and they are very nice to look at.

      Second, the non-electric versions can be used in a myriad of locations from campfires to home stoves, to the top of the wood stove. Just about any source of heat will do as long as there is a flat place upon which to place the pot. There are some exceptions to this. There were (and still are as far as I know) percolators that are electric, containing a built-in heating unit in the base so all that is needed is a source of electricity.

      Third, the manufacturer of the pot does not have to worry about close tolerances. Anything close counts, and even after the pots have seen years of service and rough handling, and sport more dents than a '63 Plymouth Valiant, they seem to work about the same as when new.

How Does A Percolator Work?

      In the bottom section of the percolator the user places the correct amount of water for the amount of coffee to be made. The basket, into which the ground coffee is placed, is held aloft in the pot by a hollow tube, at the bottom of which is a stand. Water in the bottom of the pot is brought to boiling, or nearly so. The heated water is forced up the center, hollow tube. At the top of the tube the heated water is dispersed downward, often by a small glass dome in the lid. This water then, by the force of gravity, goes through the perforated lid on the basket containing the coffee grounds, dribbles through the coffee, then leaves the basket through little holes under the grounds on the bottom of the basket. That brewed coffee is then mixed with the water heating in the bottom of the main pot where the process begins anew. All of these parts can be seen here, the basket assembly shown inset is not to scale, being larger than shown in the picture.

Don't Try This At Home
      There are a lot of things wrong with making coffee this way, and I will try to concentrate on the main ones. To begin with, coffee should never be boiled and the grounds should never be exposed to water that is over about 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Getting coffee or the grounds hotter than this can damage some of the flavor components and over-extract the coffee, removing elements from the grounds that harm the taste of the coffee beverage. In the percolator, the coffee beverage itself is being brought to a high temperature in the bottom of the pot, and the longer the brewing takes place the hotter the grounds get as well.

      Water should only be passed through the grounds one time. In the percolator, the coffee is passed through the grounds over and over again until the desired (or final) strength of the brew is achieved.

      Water should be allowed to be in contact with the coffee for a longer period of time, if possible, but only one time. The percolator method over comes the fast path the water takes through the grounds by passing the water through the grounds over and over.

      As I mentioned above the proper temperature for brewing coffee is about 205 degrees. Percolators, particularly the ones that depend on an outside heat source, have no way to regulate the temperature.

      In a percolator it is difficult to regulate the brew strength. You can time the perc from when water first appears to bubble in the glass dome on the lid, but brew time is relative to amount of coffee, the grind, and the temperature as well. Clear glass percolators help make that easier, but not very accurately.

      The wonderful aroma that fills the house when one of these pots is working on the stove is the flavor of the coffee being boiled out and placed in the air instead of into the cup.

      There are better ways to make coffee- nearly any other way is superior.

Coffee Cup